All About the African Sulcata Tortoise
The African sulcata is the third largest tortoise on earth and the largest mainland tortoise! They can easily reach 20 to 30 inches in carapace (shell) length and can weigh over 200 pounds!
Habitat and Behavior
Sulcatas are native to the Sahel region of the Sahara desert in Africa. They are a crepuscular reptile, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk.
These tortoises spend the hottest part of the day in aestivation, a state of inactivity and metabolic depression during summer. Think reverse hibernation.
To escape the scorching desert heat, they dig burrows of 30 inches in length. Some even excavate complex tunnel systems under the dry desert earth. Since they are cold blooded, they stay warm throughout cold nights with the heat their burrows retain from the day.
Permanent sleeping burrows are also constructed and are sometimes shared by two or more tortoises and hatchlings will take up residence in abandoned mammal burrows.
The sulcatas carapace (the top shell) is brown in color which provides camouflage in the wild. The carapace is flat and oval in shape and is serrated between scutes (large keratinous scales on the shell) which display growth rings that develop as they age.
On their thighs they have large horns or "spurs" which is why they're often referred to as the "African spurred tortoise". It is debated as to what purpose these spurs serve but some say it's a form of defense. The sulcata, while being extremely large, lacks defense against certain predators such as raccoons and rats and are commonly attacked while sleeping.
Their plastron (stomach shell), head and limbs are a yellow/tan color. Overlapping scales, horny in appearance, cover the front surface of their forelimbs (which assist in digging long burrows). Their elephant like feet have short stubby "claws" at the ends which aid in said digging. Sulcatas also have extremely thick skin which helps prevent dangerous water loss in the wild.
Mating occurs during the rainy season, around February. Males will fight for dominance over females and can be hilariously vocal during mating.
After a gestation period of around 60 days, the female searches for a suitable nesting place. The mother sulcata may often dig several nests until she is happy with one. Each nest can take between 1 to 4 hours to build. She then begins to lay eggs every 3 minutes.Clutches may contain 15 to 30+ eggs!
The nests are then filled in and the eggs completely covered. It takes around 8 months until hatchlings emerge from the eggs 1 to 3 days after a rainfall and usually at night. It can take many days for the new babies to dig themselves out of the nest!
Baby sulcatas are a light yellow color and impossibly tiny at only 2 to 3 inches at birth! With proper food sources, they can grow rapidly during their first few years reaching almost a foot in length. They are born with a yolk sac still attached that provides nutrients until it dries up.
Sulcatas are grazers, very much like a cow! Primary foods for them in the wild as well as captivity are grasses, cactus, weeds, leaves and flowers. Food is sometimes scarce in the Sahara so a tortoise can travel miles in search of food. They can eat massive amounts of food when available and retain every bit of moisture possible as water is scarce. They return to their burrows to defecate, creating their own micro climate oasis!